Language Experts and the History of an Error

NorGateby Jon N. Hall    5/1/14
Language experts disdain the word “nor.” Why? I contend it’s because language experts don’t really understand “nor,” nor do they fully understand other conjunctions. Some language experts treat conjunctions as though all they do is connect. But conjunctions do much more than merely connect; they set conditions.

Conjunctions are a far more important part of speech than many language experts realize. Language experts need to come up with new rules and definitions for conjunctions (viz., “nor,” “or,” and “and”) that reflect the rules and definitions that logicians gave them long ago. Perhaps language experts are afraid of revealing their fallibility; after all, they can be a proud lot. Nonetheless, they must swallow their pride and defer to logicians on the correct use of conjunctions if they want to have sensible rules.

It’s not “nor” that language experts should be afraid of, it’s “or.” If the word “or” stipulates one of the items on a list, and the word “nor” stipulates none of the items on a list, then how can those two words be interchangeable? Put in that light, a normal person would say No, the two words can’t be swapped. But language experts are smarter than normal folks, and they contend that in one case the words can be interchangeable.

Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009) by Bryan A. Garner, perhaps America’s premier usage expert, is where I first learnt that illogic had actually been codified into English language rules. On page 571 in his entry for NOR we find Garner’s rule:

B. For or. When the negative of a clause or phrase has appeared at the outset of an enumeration, and a disjunctive conjunction is needed, or is generally better than nor.

And on the next page in his entry for NOT, Garner repeats his nonsense:

B. Not . . . nor. This construction should usually (when short phrases or clauses are involved) be not . . . or.

This last entry ends niftily as I’ve been calling this mistake the “not-or error.” These entries also appeared in the 2003 edition of Garner’s tome, but were not corrected for the 2009 edition. So where were the guardians of the English language, the so-called experts? And what the dickens is wrong with “nor”? Garner never says.

Although it should be avoided, applying negation to disjunction is not ungrammatical, nor is it illogical. The reason Garner’s above rules are errors is because they do not jibe with what he wants. That can be deduced from reading the examples he uses to illustrate his rules. It’s quite evident that Garner does not intend disjunction. What he intends is that negation be attached to all the “elements” in his “enumerations.” What he intends is what logicians call “joint denial,” not disjunction. I’ve been trying to get Mr. Garner to defend his rules, but he’s hiding under his desk. Garner, however, is by no means the only language guru who errs on this matter.

Another guy who gets it wrong is Paul W. Lovinger. In his entry for NOR (page 262) in The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style (2000), Lovinger considers a perfectly grammatical construction, which he even admits “some grammarians would condone,” but still advises: “Change ‘nor’ to or.” I repeat: What’s wrong with “nor”? Lovinger might try to understand how these words actually function and what they specify, for he also writes: “Nor, like or, links alternatives.”

Not so. The word “alternative” indicates choice. “Nor” does not link choices; it links things which are all disallowed. In the online Oxford English Dictionary, the fourth selection in the entry for NOR has this quote by W. E. Gladstone: “Not a vessel, nor a gun, nor a man, were on the ground to prevent their landing.” Are we to think that a gun or a man could have been on the ground? Of course not; both gun and man were kept from being on the ground … by “nor.” Parents who tell their spirited daughter she can date neither Tom, Dick, nor Harry aren’t offering her an alternative.

The confusion surrounding “nor” seems to be of recent vintage. Shakespeare certainly understood the word when he penned: “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme; …” No one, not even Bryan A. Garner, is going to correct the bard, are they? Shelley also exhibited a certain knack for “nor”: “NOR happiness, nor majesty, nor fame, / Nor peace, nor strength, nor skill in arms or arts, / Shepherd those herds whom tyranny makes tame; …”

As late as 1954, the American author Alan Le May could correctly handle “nor” in his novel The Searchers: “You don’t have to call me ‘Sir,’ neither. Nor ‘Grampaw,’ neither.  Nor ‘Methuselah,’ neither. I can whup you to a frazzle.” But in a Los Angeles Times book review of Edna O’Brien’s 2013 memoir Country Girl, we read:

Once when an inspector was visiting her school, she was called on to recite from the New Testament. Asked if she took a great interest in Jesus, she expressed her disappointment that he “had been so curt with his mother at the Feast of Cana, when, worried about the scarcity of wine, he said, ‘It is not my business or thine.’”

Leave aside O’Brien’s loose translation, our business is with the penultimate word in the quote, that pesky “or.” But substitute “nor,” and your word processor might flag it.

In 1926, the revered British usage maven H.W. Fowler started sowing the seeds of illogic with his venerated A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. This quote is from the first paragraph of the NOR entry in “The Classic First Edition”:

The tendency to go wrong is probably due to confusion between the simple verbs (moves &c.) & the resolved ones (does move &c.) ; if the verb is resolved, there is often an auxiliary that serves both clauses, &, as the negative is attached to the auxiliary, its force is carried on together with that of the auxiliary & no fresh negative is wanted. Two cautions are necessary on this carrying on of the negative force & consequent preference of or to nor.

Garner may well have lifted his rule from Fowler as he justified his rule by contending that: “The initial negative carries through to all the enumerated elements.” And as you just read, Fowler also contended that the negative force “is carried on.” But with Fowler, the “carrying on” is accomplished by the means of an auxiliary. Garner would seem not to agree, as the majority of his examples do not have auxiliaries.

But the English language doesn’t need auxiliaries to “carry” negative force forward. Language is linear; like water, it has only one place to go, and that’s forward. The subject goes forth into the predicate; that’s the way language usually works. So this business about “carrying through” is mite daft. Of course, it carries through. Meanings accrete as one goes forward, piling up words.

With his fixation on auxiliaries and “resolved verbs,” Fowler shows that he does not understand conjunctions. For it is not the leading negative that does the work; it is the conjunction. Indeed, “nor” doesn’t even need a leading negative. But Fowler seems to think such usage “is legitimate in poetry” only, and not in “ordinary” prose. Although it is now less common, one can still hear this usage of “nor.” For example, in her dispatch from Moscow on February 19, Fox News correspondent Amy Kellogg said this: “Ukraine desperately needs money, which Moscow nor anyone would be likely to dispense to a government that does not have control of the country, Bret.”

Fowler offers up several erroneous examples that he attempts to fix. In five of the examples he says that “or must be corrected into nor if the rest of the sentence is to remain as it is,” which is terrific. But Fowler’s hatred of “nor” is so strong that he then goes on to rewrite the examples so that he doesn’t have to use the dread word. And in those alternative rewrites Fowler makes a mess of things.

In the first paragraph of his entry for NOR, Fowler posits that “He does not move or speak” is the equivalent of “He neither moves nor speaks.” An equivalent of the second sentence is: Moving and speaking are activities he doesn’t do. And if that be so, then we have (supposedly) expressed the same sense with three conflicting conjunctions. What’s disturbing is that this madness has been sanctioned by language experts on both sides of the Atlantic for at least the last 88 years.

Not everything Fowler wrote about “nor” is nonsense. But if I were I Fowler’s editor, I’d advise him not to begin an entry with the Book of Common Prayer unless the entry is free of sin. That is not the case with his entry for NOR.

Fowler’s tome was first revised in 1965 by Sir Ernest Gowers (go here and enter 394 in the page box for NOR.). In this second edition, Sir Ernest inserts his own example and corrects it, and it’s fairly interesting:

In this kind of work there was often little oral preparation of material, little systematic collection of facts and views, well assimilated and digested, or much discussion of balance and proportion. The writer has forgotten that he began there was often little and has ended as though he had said there was seldom much. Or must be corrected to nor was there.

Sir Ernest makes a serious mistake here, as he fails to recognize that his example does not contain a negative and therefore cannot be used to illustrate the error. He then compounds that mistake with his correction; replacing “or” with “nor was there” would suggest the negation of the previous items. (Attenuation is not negation, Sir Ernest.)

As Sir Ernest noted, the author of the example created the problem with his shift from “little” to “much.” What he (probably) intended might be better said by continuing with the parallelism; that is, by changing “or much” to “and little.” Or, he could have changed “or much” to “and not much.”

The snag with those rewrites is that I’m assuming I know what the author intended. But perhaps the author meant exactly what he wrote. After all, his statement is grammatical, and can be read literally: as offering three alternatives. Maybe it’s a clue from Jeopardy or something.

Inasmuch as Sir Ernest deletes some of the first edition’s examples, if you want to read all of what the sainted and enskied H.W. Fowler had to say on the issue of “or” and “nor,” then refer to “The Classic First Edition” (2009) and enter 422 in the page box for NOR. British language expert David Crystal provided added notes, but, alas, there is no note on “nor” in the section “Notes on the Entries.” (This interesting video of Mr. Crystal dilating on Fowler is worth watching.)

In 1996, R.W. Burchfield revised Fowler (go here and enter 527 in the page box for NOR). Burchfield wisely (and mercifully) avoids our issue altogether. In fact, Burchfield seems to have replaced Fowler’s entry in its entirety. (Good show, old boy.)

With their expectation that disjunction be interpreted as “joint denial,” language experts seem to think along the lines of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, who purportedly said: “include me out.” In any event, the rules of the English language have got to provide for those arenas where expression must be 100 percent unambiguous. If you can’t devise such rules, step aside.

If that sounds like the ravings of some pathetic, anal retentive grammar stickler, then know that I don’t mind it so very much when regular folks misuse the language. In fact, I mydamnself just love to mangle the frickin language; I often write my emails in the patois of an Ozark hick, which for me comes natural. It’s when the Rule Makers, the so-called experts, mess up that I get riled. Bryan Garner, I can whup you to a frazzle.

(To read my replacement rule, see “Lousy Logic: Get Used to It.”)
Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. • (10852 views)

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One Response to Language Experts and the History of an Error

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    When I was in school, “nor” was part of “neither . . . nor”, and I don’t think it was supposed to be used in any other way. As for logic, it can be interesting (as a former computer programmer) to contrast the grammatical use of words such as “and” and “nor” with the computer use. (“I’m thinking of a number between 0 and 255 and it’s 2 or 4. What is it?” The correct answer, of course, is 6.)

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